TABLE 3-1. Worker Strategies to Control Workplace Hazards

Strategy Type




I. Quitting hazardous jobs; searching for jobs in safe workplaces

III. Joining labor unions; bargaining with employers for safe working conditions


II. Suing in court for individual rights to information about hazards, to refuse hazardous assignments, and to report hazards without reprisal

IV. Organizing to secure government action to prevent or reduce health and safety hazards in the workplace

SOURCE: Adapted from Robinson (1991).

People quit jobs (Option I) for many reasons under many different circumstances. In theory, if employers perceive that employee departures are motivated by safety concerns and if they find hiring new workers troublesome, they may be motivated to improve working conditions. As a workplace-change strategy, the quitting option has serious limitations. In particular, workers with low levels of education and skills, who are often found in the most hazardous jobs, may lack better alternatives and, possibly, a real understanding of the risks that they face. Such individual workers are also not well prepared to challenge employers’ unsafe working conditions in court (Option II).1

Unions and collective bargaining (Option III) have given workers a more powerful voice to influence employers and improve working conditions. The priorities in collective bargaining, however, generally involve wages, benefits, and job security. These objectives are relatively easy to understand, measure, and assess if achieved. They also generally affect union members across a wide range of job circumstances.

In contrast, unsafe working conditions may be less visible and may affect a smaller proportion of a union’s members. Unions do negotiate with employers over issues such as hazard pay, provision of protective equipment, safety training, and reduction or elimination of workplace hazards. They have, however, cited lack of technical capacity to analyze health and safety problems and evaluate possible remedies for these problems as a barrier to the use of collective bargaining to negotiate workplace safety issues (Mendeloff, 1978). Lack of technical capacity and other resources may also constrain union use of litigation as a strategy to improve workplace conditions.

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